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Brawl between NBC's 'The Contender' and FOX's 'The Next Great Champ' heats up


By Wade Paulsen, 05/06/2004 

Boxing matches are known for their embarrassing pre-fight "brawls," which typically take place at press conferences and weigh-ins. It looks like the boxing-focused TV shows will follow in their footsteps.

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As previously reported, two boxing reality-competition shows are scheduled to debut during the 2004-05 season: NBC's The Contender and Fox's The Next Great Champ. This week, Oscar de la Hoya, host and co-producer of The Next Great Champ, denigrated The Contender, while Mark Burnett, creator and executive producer of The Contender, threatened legal action against The Next Great Champ.

De la Hoya, who first became widely known for celebrating with a Mexican flag instead of an American one after winning a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics, told the Scripps Howard News Service that he had been approached by DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-producer of The Contender to consider the host's role on that show. He turned it down because The Contender was, in his words, merely a "(glorified) tough-man contest," not a legitimate boxing-focused show. The "Golden Boy" said that, by contrast, his show was "going to have real amateurs fighting, and I think that it will be great for the sport."

Burnett, who ultimately hired boxing hall-of-famer and 1976 Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard to host The Contender, was less concerned with de la Hoya's charges and more concerned with the very existence of The Next Great Champ on Fox, which lost a bidding war with NBC to acquire The Contender. Burnett, whose upcoming show The Casino will air on Fox, told Variety, "Fox lost out fair and square, and it's hard to believe they'd do something substantially similar. If we feel they've stepped over the line, it's creatively outrageous ... we take legal action."

Looks like this is just the start of the first round. Stay tuned for the rest of the fight, which may not end anytime soon.

Burnett clearly has reason to be concerned about The Next Great Champ. Although it was pitched first, The Contender will not air until 2005. Meanwhile, Endemol USA plans to have The Next Great Champ ready to air in November 2004. There is a strong risk that The Contender will be seen by most viewers as the "copycat," even though the reverse is true.

Does Burnett have a viable lawsuit? Endemol might not be worried, considering that it just won a lawsuit alleging that its Big Brother concept ripped off Survivor -- and keeping in mind that Burnett also lost a lawsuit contending that ABC's I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! stole from Survivor. However, the fact that both Fox and Oscar de la Hoya were so familiar with The Contender may be a "bad fact" in litigation.

Burnett certainly has shown a willingness to sue over intellectual property in the past. In addition to the lawsuits discussed above, Burnett sued the producers of Fox's Boot Camp, LMNO Productions, for copyright violations. The lawsuit died only because Boot Camp stiffed in the ratings.

Seen from that context, de la Hoya's broadside may be an attempt to establish a difference between the shows prior to litigation. Although The Contender says on its website that it is looking for "qualified male boxers," and while its application form asks applicants for their amateur and professional boxing records, copies of any permits or licenses that the applicants hold, and several other questions about boxing history, the show does not absolutely require such a past. Therefore, de la Hoya alleged that Burnett's show would take "any person off the street," so The Contender "can't be real fighting" because "it takes talent to fight."

By contrast, applicants for The Next Great Champ are required to have fought at least 10 amateur bouts. Whether this difference in requirements will actually lead to a difference in the experience level of contestants between the shows is doubtful, but that may be less important to Endemol and de la Hoya than the ability to portray it as a difference in court.

Are we being cynical when we view this war of words through the prism of litigation? Well, we're not the only ones viewing it that way. Consider de la Hoya's closing thoughts to Scripps Howard: "This is a tremendous opportunity for boxing. This is going to bring visibility to our sport and open some eyes. Our show is coming out in November and their show is coming out a little later. I think that there's enough pie out there for everyone."

In other words -- Mark Burnett, if you sue The Next Great Champ, you're hurting the entire sport of boxing. (As if boxing doesn't have so many self-inflicted wounds that no one would even notice this one.) Of course, we note that Endemol gave de la Hoya co-producer status on The Next Great Champ as well as promotional and management rights to the winner, so we doubt that Oscar can portray his motivations in launching a copycat show as entirely altruistic....

Although recent losses to Shane Mosley (twice) and Felix Trinidad have dimmed de la Hoya's star, he is still the second biggest active attraction in boxing, behind only Mike Tyson. Although recent losses in court may have dimmed Mark Burnett's star slightly, he is still the biggest name in reality-TV production. We have to rate this bout a draw -- for now.

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